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UNC Routs NC State: Mr. Barnes, Your Arrival Time Is Approaching

January 30, 2011


How does one judge the moment of an individual's arrival? The term arrival is thrown around like it is some cumulative moment, that everything in life has added up to. We say a player has arrived as if that settles all debate on an athlete's legacy and there is nothing else to add, but rarely, are moments in sports so final, or even satisfying, or distressful, as we would like to make them. Brett Favre is less than his touchdowns, but more than his interceptions. Michael Jordan is less cool than his highlight reel, and LeBron James is more sinister than a triple double, but better than The Decision. These people we call athletes are more of a twisted, mutated bird species than they are pure hawks and doves. Take Jay Cutler, for example, and it is impossible to paint him as a total quitter and wimp because he went out of a championship game with a knee sprain, when one considers that the man gets pummeled weekly and has battled diabetes for most of his life. These moments of definition are never the entire story. They are never all-encompassing. Humanity is too complicated for that.

North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes, the preseason All-American and one-time projected overall pick in this year's NBA draft, waited eighteen games this college basketball season before crossing into the stratosphere of twenty points. He dropped twenty-five on NC State yesterday, and it would be easy to say that he has now arrived on the college stage as a force to be reckoned with, especially since he also scored a last second, game-winning shot on Miami earlier in the week, but it's not that simple. Harrison Barnes was a legit college player prior to this week, already a vital cog in turning around Carolina's pedestrian 4-3 start to the season to a surging 14-5 record that features a 5-1 start in the ACC, giving a strong defensive effort every night and demonstrating an ability to hit clutch threes on the road or at home. Harrison Barnes may have smiled wide enough to say finally yesterday and let out a sigh of relief at how easily and often the ball went in the basket for him, against the Wolfpack, but that twenty-five points was not his biggest contribution to Carolina basketball in these early stages of his career.

The goodwill was there for all to see. John Henson was cracking jokes, dunking like Walt Disney's Goofy used to ski off cliffs. Tyler Zeller was grinning like some old church Deacon remembering the first time he got drunk at a barn dance, and even Old Roy couldn't help but be happy for a moment. The focus seemed to orbit around Harrison Barnes' stat line, but the thing was, that wasn't it at all. This team was happy because the real gravity of the moment was that this young team is finally starting to realize its identiy, something that didn't seem possible when it got blown out three games ago by Georgia Tech. At that moment, this team seemed as lost as it had last year when it was depending on Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, and Will Graves for leadership, which was like relying on cannibals to perform CPR. 



The negative vibes from last year's teams had infiltrated the Tar Heel fanbase to such an extent that Roy Williams, winner of two national championships in the last six years and coach of five Final Four teams in the last nine years, was no longer seen as a viable source of leadership by his own basketball family. People were not only questioning his coaching abilities, but his recruiting strategies as well, and the blood in the water was blinding them to the fact that this team was not last year's team, that this year's team fights back from double digit margins on the road and bounces back from twenty-point blowouts with three consecutive conference wins, that the much maligned Larry Drew II is embracing a role off the bench, that slow-footed Kendall Marshall can run Roy's roadrunner offense, that Reggie Bullock can carry a team offensively in spurts, that Leslie McDonald is for real, that John Henson may actually be a basketball player, that Tyler Zeller is a serviceable big man, and that, yes, Harrison Barnes can score over twenty points in a game. This team will not win a conference championship or a national title this year, and it may even get swept by Duke, but after two consecutive years of losing at least its top three scorers and having to rebuild its rotations and talent base, this team is displaying signs not only that it will get what Roy is preaching but that it wants to hear the sermon. This team is hungry for success, not draft status or personal stats, and that in and of itself is the most telling sign of how Roy Williams is shaping this team.

Harrison Barnes' twenty-five points is something to smile at, but only in the way that a kid smiles at a passing plane, unsure of where it's going to land. Enjoy the flight; hopefully, it's just beginning.

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